Escape the Silos

How the press can help rebuild the American conversation

In his wonderful book, The Earl of Louisiana, A. J. Liebling takes many a detour on his way to explaining that state, and in one of them he talks food. Specifically, he asks why food is so great in New Orleans and so bad sixty miles or so to the north. More specifically, he discusses PoBoys.

Liebling and a companion stop at a joint north of New Orleans that promises “Shrimp, BarBQue, PoBoy” but delivers heartbreak: “The BarBQue was out, the shrimps stiff with inedible batter, the coffee desperate.” As for the PoBoy, the traditional fried meat or seafood submarine, Liebling reaches a sad conclusion: “A PoBoy at Mumfrey’s in New Orleans is a portable banquet. In the South proper, it is a crippling blow to the intestine.” He goes on to discuss the many varied influences that make New Orleans such a delicious cultural gumbo.

What’s true about food is true of ideas: they get better when they’re adjacent in the pan. Ideas—particularly political ideas—are meant to be shared, to redefine themselves over the blue flame of discussion. Consumed in isolation they taste bland. Kept too long they get rancid. That’s a problem in America, where we increasingly live in separate information silos. In uncertain times the tribes gather close. People don’t talk to outsiders.

Media trends aren’t helping the situation. There is simple shrinkage, for starters. The Chicago Tribune used to cover the Midwest; now it covers Chicago, barely. And ideological fracturing: Fox News and MSNBC, as everyone knows, profit by preaching to their respective choirs. It’s not the end of the world—the objective approach isn’t the only one that has value. Still, a massive retreat into ideological niches is hardly restricted to cable TV, and it doesn’t help the nation address its challenges.

The battered mainstream press has a mission here that can frame its work and maybe even energize it: helping to rebuild the democratic conversation. The key is not some namby-pamby civic sewing circle. Rather, the press should work toward the kind of earned authority that provides some common factual ground. Some suggestions:

• Ignore the bias bullies. If you are intellectually honest in your reporting and in story choices, stop cringing every time somebody says you are not.

• Stand up for facts. When Michele Bachmann insists that a million people came to Glenn Beck’s D.C. march, she’s no different from Louis Farrakhan, who insisted in 1995 that his Million Man March was just that. It wasn’t. But with the exception of CBS News, most media went he said/she said on Beck.

• Stop groveling. The Portland Press Herald took heat from readers for publishing an end-of-Ramadan feature on an auspicious date: 9/11. But there is a way to say, “We should have had more 9/11 coverage” without apologizing for a story about a legitimate segment of the readership.

• Do what you do best—deep reporting backed by institutional processes. David Carr recently described the impact of his first online scooplet like this: “Boom.” He compared that to the impact of an October investigative piece he wrote in The New York Times: “Boom. Boom. Boom.” The difference? “There were many versions” of the article that finally ran in the Times, “lots of feedback from near and far, fact-checking, copy-checking and double-checking, all part of the practical effort to publish something as accurate as possible in a defined space.” All of that comes through to readers. Of course the Times brand didn’t hurt, but that is the point. There are, in scale, journalistic brands all over America that still have clout.

Civic discourse won’t be rapidly repaired in the wake of an angry election like the one that just ended any more than PoBoys will become an art form in Arkansas. But the press can best help rebuild the forum that makes democracy work by being its best self.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.